With an abundance of direct-to-consumer streaming platforms and the pronounced need for content to go along with those services, the talk show, previously viewed an antique from the linear television days, has seen an unlikely resurrection. David Letterman returned with a looser format and bushier beard and Jerry Seinfeld kept driving around with people who made him laugh, with the format also allowing for exciting new talents like Michelle Wolf and Hasan Minhaj. Even Elmo has a talk show on HBO Max. The pre-established structure of talk shows is now only tangentially followed, with more room for both the host and guests to play around. This is clearly evidenced by Earth to Ned, premiering this week on Disney+, easily the weirdest talk show on the market and a total triumph. It’s as joyous as it is bizarre.
Earth to Ned is built around a beguiling conceit: Ned (a towering puppet-y creation Shop whose voice and head are performed by Paul Rugg) is a space alien sent to earth by his emotionally distant father to conquer Earth. But when he gets here, he becomes enchanted by pop culture and celebrities and instead decides to host a talk show instead. He’s joined by his sidekick, another weird alien creature named Cornelius (Michael Oosterom) along with his navigational computer Beti (Colleen Smith) and CLODs (that’s short for Cloned Living Organism of Destruction), an infestation of tiny, furry, tentacled critters that speak in gibberish and generally freak out Ned’s guests, who he abducts to his spaceship, buried underneath the Earth’s crust.
Generally, the show follows the conventions of the talk show format: Each episode has two guests of about the caliber you’d expect for a show populated exclusively by puppets, and there are occasionally “remotes” with Cornelius where he talks to a bunch of writers from other late-night shows or, on the Halloween-themed episode (entitled “Night of the Living Ned”) the spooky owner of a cemetery. There’s also the occasional game elements and other tangential oddness like when Lil Rey Howery and Ned reenact a scene from Get Out (yes, really). But there are additional layers to each interview, too. Since Ned is a space alien, when he’s talking to his guests, he’s also trying to obtain more information about human beings (for possible conquering). It makes every interview that much more absurd and enjoyable. In some ways, it feels like Jim Henson’s Creature Shop had made Borat.
How much enjoyment you’ll get out of Earth to Ned is probably directly tied into how charming you find the central character and, for the record, I thought he was a total hoot. Ned’s personality is a combination of Charles Nelson Reilly and Billy Eichner; he’s prone to shouting at guests (he repeatedly yells at Gillian Jacobs, asking her how much money she makes) and wiggling around his four arms wildly. (Is it too early to label him a non-binary LGBTQ icon in the making?) Earth to Ned is clearly indebted to old 70s talk shows, when the hosts were allowed to be a little more irreverent, and by more recent, nonconforming explorations of the format like Fishing with John and its most obvious ancestor Space Ghost: Coast to Coast. The show also owes a huge debt to the more experimental output of Jim Henson and his beloved Creature Shop (Jim’s son Brian Henson is an executive producer), especially the boundary-pushing work at the end of his life on things like The Jim Henson Hour and The Storyteller. You can feel this influence in both the tone and look of the show. And it’s a testament to how believable the Henson creations are, and how well they work within the context of Earth to Ned’s talk show structure, that every guest in the five episodes Disney+ provided for review, seemed genuinely sad for the interview to end. Nobody wants to get beamed back to Earth. Especially now.
While Earth to Ned was produced by Henson, it was always intended for Disney+, and sometimes you can feel the company’s synergistic needs creep into what was otherwise a completely off-the-wall endeavor. These moments are, unfortunately, a bummer, like the entire episode devoted to Star Wars (complete with a baffling BB-8 cameo) or a wholly unnecessary appearance (in one of the Cornelius-led remote segments) by the stars of Disney+ original series High School Musical: The Musical: The Series. (Much funnier is a moment when two of the CLODs do a bargain-basement production of Hamilton for Ned.) While these moments are off-putting and crass, they’re certainly not enough to break Earth to Ned’s one-of-a-kind spell.
And there really is nothing else like Earth to Ned — on Disney+ or anywhere else for that matter. Ned himself is a dazzling technical accomplishment, requiring four puppeteers to bring to life, and set feels cavernous and old school, like a 1960s pulp paperback idea of what a spaceship (and what space aliens) should look like. And there’s so much joy packed into each and every episode, from Ned and Cornelius’ playful interaction to the way guests react to the CLODs, that even when jokes fail to land (or you don’t totally buy into the otherworldly conceit), it’s easy to glide over because the show is so overwhelmingly fun. There isn’t a mean bone in Ned’s four-armed body, and that kind of goofy charm, paired with its earnest world-building and incredibly designed environments and characters, is infectious. It’s the strangest thing on Disney+ by a considerable margin and that’s a good thing – Earth to Ned has a personality and flavor all its own. You’ll be begging to be beamed up, again and again.
Earth to Ned premieres Friday, September 4 on Disney+.